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20 - Subtitling - second part

"But teaching me the script was something for which Mother had no patience at all. She threw away her principles overboard, and I kept the book"1.

In intralingual subtitling as a physical aid, time-tried techniques for graphically translating at least a few super-segmental traits were elaborated. De Linde and Kay (1999) offer some examples.

One of the inaudible super-segmental traits is hesitation, the pause in which the speaker shows second thoughts on her last utterance. In these cases one technique consists in using an ellipsis before and after the pause and using a new line without a real need for one, but that of expressing such hesitating pause:


...But I don't dislike him. (1999: 13)

This type of graphic device expresses a nuance of expression analogue to those expressed by vocal hesitations, like er, hmm, etc.

Another element that the hard of hearing can't perceive is the tone of voice. For this reason, beyond observing the facial expression of actors, that can be very indicative in that sense, the viewers can take advantage of other graphical devices. For example, in the subtitle:

No, no. You're not late (!) (Ibidem)

one perceives a tone of lively expression, of insistence, or peremptory affirmation, while in the subtitle:

No, no. You're not late (?)

one can sense the ironic intention of the speaker, who probably is pulling the collocutor's leg, wishing to express the exact opposite of the denotative meaning of the pronounced words. Note that in these instances, the punctuation is in parentheses to distinguish it from the usual punctuation, that has its usual conventional meaning.

As to particular accents and pronunciations, sometimes it is possible to use particular spellings that can suggest a pronunciation different from the standard one. In American English there are some examples widely used even in printed texts. For example gonna substitutes going to, wanna substitutes want to, ain't substitutes isn't and so on. And origins of the speaker can be revealed by a spelling that imitates pronunciation, be it foreign or regional: a Japanese could ask "You rike my rickshaw?", a Southerner could axe a girl out to corfee, a Hippy could greet his buddies with "Whut's hap'nin'" and an Italian can show concern asking "Wassa matta u?" But when the spelling cannot be of use, there can be a metalingual intervention within the framework of the subtitle:


TV is a medium because it is neither rare nor well done. (ibidem)

This pun would hardly have found a different way of expressing the American accent. It is based on the ambivalence of three meanings: medium, rare and well-done are the three levels at which you can order a steak in the U. S.: medium or pink centered, rare or red in the center, well done or brown in the center. At the same time, medium is also the (Latin) singular of media, meant here as mass media, rare means also «uncommon» and well done means also «done in a good way».

Puns are another hard point for translators dealing with subtitles. Particularly, homophones create great pain when you want to transcribe them. De Linde and Kay refer the example from a Quentin Tarantino's movie, the famous Pulp Fiction:

Three tomatoes are walking down the street. Papa, mama and baby tomato. Baby tomato starts lagging behind. Papa tomato gets really angry... goes back and squishes him. Says "Ketchup".

The difficulty here is understanding the pun between "catch up" and "ketchup". The subtitler's choice here fell on the use of the spelling of the word more unusual in this context (ketchup), hoping that the viewer can recall the sentence that would be obvious in that context (catch up).

Another element that the hard of hearing don't perceive and on which, moreover, they have no clue, are the sounds from sources outside the screen's field. In case of a bloodcurdling scream, an often used method consists in verbally explicitating what in the soundtrack is implicit:


Here the cap script gives an idea of the intensity of noise and, even if in the viewer won't experience the same effect that the actual scream, certainly it will allow her to put herself in condition to perceive the remainder of the plot as if she had heard it.

Music in movies is indicated by a verbal explicitation indicating the type of melody that one would hear, at least to approximately give the viewer an idea. If the music is sung, the graphic sign # is put before the text, that, by convention, is thus received as sung music.

If subtitles have the advantage of not being a substitute for the prototext, of accompanying it, they have the disadvantage of transforming an intersemiotic reception using the channels of visual perception of images and hearing into an intersemiotic reception that, in the case of people of normal hearing, is still richer, since it involves hearing, visual perception of images and visual perception of verbal text. De Linde and Kay ask a question also essential for dubbing:

Subtitles integrate with oral, visual and audio information. In contrast to these forms, subtitles are not conceptualized at the time of film production. Rather, they are later additions which must combine with the audio-visual make-up of the source film.

When oral dialogue is substituted by [written] textual discourse the overall structure of the film narrative is changed (1999: 17).

Such a reflection concerning the addition of intervention extraneous to the production at a later time is an element of primary importance also as far as dubbing is concerned, where the translated text comes to the point of completely substituting the text designed and realized by the authors of the film.

A practice sometimes followed in subtitling translation consists in realizing that the subtitle, since it is written literature, "should" respect the canons ruling in the receiving culture as far as written literature is concerned.

Such consideration in my opinion is completely unfounded and absurd, because the nature of the subtitle as transcription of the oral discourse is self-evident. In this way, many written printed translations whose dialogues are deformed and transported from one register to another only for the fact of having been transcribed. It would make no sense that a spoken sentence like

What the hell is all this ruckus?

became, in a subtitle or in a novel :

I think I may have heard some noise.

It is a view of translation as censorship, where the publisher, or the translator for the publisher, is forced to pretend that the reality of the spoken language is different from what it is. Novels published in this way (and movies subtitled in this way) in the end appear as ridiculous, because they lose all touch with reality. I cite here an example of a recently published book. Two neighbors are talking in the garden:

"Anyway" I said "I gotta cut the grass now."

"Let me do it " said Tim.

The editor transformed this fresh, spontaneous exchange into something impossible:

"Well, now," I said, "I simply must mow the lawn."

"Allow me," responded Tim. (Knight 2003: 46).

It is evident that two normal persons simply jawboning, not reading a newscast, would not use the more formal verb mow. When "Let me do it" becomes "Allow me" the situation becomes comically formal. The tone assumes that limited to parodies of upper class English nobility. Try the line yourself while leaning over the back fence!


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

DE LINDE ZOÉ and KAY NEIL The Semiotics of Subtitling, Manchester, St. Jerome, 1999, ISBN 1-900650-18-5.

IVARSSON MARY CARROLL Subtitling, Simrishamn, Transedit HB, 1998, ISBN 91-971799-2-2.

PIRANDELLO L. Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908), in Saggi, edited by Manlio Lo Vecchio Musti, Milano, Mondadori, 1939, p. 227-246.

1 Canetti 1999: 76.